Feinstein: Thanksgiving Traditions Still Have Meaning

Everyone has different Thanksgiving memories. I still remember waking up early and walking five blocks from our apartment in Manhattan to the Central Park side of the Museum of Natural History so we could watch the parade start down Central Park West, headed for its TV climax in front of Macy’s.

It was a wonderful way to start the day: always cold, but still, at that early hour, we could get up close to all the floats and performers because there weren’t that many people around. And I got to see Santa Claus twice—first in person and then a few hours later on TV when he closed out the telecast just before noon. By then, we were back inside, warmed by my mom’s pancakes and some hot chocolate.

I was always grateful that the museum was closed for the holiday so my parents weren’t tempted to say, ‘hey, let’s pop in there for a little while.’

I’ve never been a big museum guy. When I saw ‘Night at the Museum,’ I was actually amazed at all the cool stuff they had at Natural History, a place I’ve been countless times. Whenever there was nothing to do at P.S. 87, our teachers would walk us the two blocks to the museum to kill a couple of hours. My memory is that all we ever looked at were mummies in the Egyptian section.

Once the parade was over, I watched football. My first, somewhat vague memories at this point, are of the Lions playing in Tiger Stadium, usually in awful weather.

The Lions played their last game in Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving Day in 1974. Needing a win to stay in playoff contention, they blew a lead and lost 31-27 to the Denver Broncos. Steve Owens, their star running back, tore his knee up when his foot caught on the turf at the 1-yard-line and he went down in a heap. The Lions didn’t score, lost the game, finished 7-7 and Owens never played again.

Sort of a typical Lions day.

The Thanksgiving games are still fun, but for someone like me—watching at home—not as romantic as the days when they were played outdoors in creaky old Tiger Stadium. The Lions moved to the suburbs, playing in the Pontiac Silverdome for 30 years (trust me, Pontiac is a HIKE from downtown Detroit) before moving back to the city 10 years ago to play at Ford Field—another dome.

Still, if I watch one football game on Thanksgiving, it’s the one from Detroit—even all those years when the Lions were terrible. And they were truly terrible for a long time. It is worth remembering that there is ONE NFL team that has been eligible to play in all 50 Super Bowls that has never made the ultimate football game. That would be the Lions.

The Browns, remember, didn’t have a team from 1996 to 1998 before they were reborn as the god-awful team the city of Cleveland has to put up with now. The Ravens—who were the Browns until 1996—didn’t exist until then and have been to two Super Bowls since becoming Baltimore’s franchise. Even the soon-to-be Los Angeles Chargers made the game once although they lost to 49ers by about 100.

The Lions stand alone. They also stand alone—at least as of this moment (the Browns have a real shot to match them)—as the only NFL team to go 0-16. That was in 2008 in the midst of a nine-year stretch when they lost every Thanksgiving game they played in. There was even talk about taking the game away from the Lions—who have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1945—because the TV networks were whining that the Lions were hurting their ratings. Fortunately, for once, Roger Goodell didn’t give in to TV and the Lions kept the game. In fact, going into Thursday’s game with the Vikings, they’ve WON their last three Thanksgiving games. Hallelujah!

I know they’ve played a game in Dallas almost every year since 1966 (there were two years in the 70s when the St. Louis Cardinals actually hosted Thanksgiving Day games) and the Cowboys are always the sexier game, especially this year when they’re 9-1 and playing a good Washington team.

Column interlude: If you missed seeing Washington owner Danny Snyder jumping around like an 8-year-old late in his team’s win over the suddenly hapless Packers, check it out on YouTube. Snyder is always good for a laugh.

The Lions and Vikings will play tomorrow with first place in the NFC North at stake, since both are 6-4. My friend Mark Maske, who covers the NFL for The Washington Post, wrote about the game in this morning’s paper: “The Lions are playing an important, must-see game on Thanksgiving. Holiday traditions apparently mean nothing anymore.”

The Dallas game always starts around the time we sit down to dinner. If the game is competitive, I’ll watch the second half, but I’m usually more in a mood to sleep or, nowadays, turn on a college basketball game once dinner is over. As for the night game—a sop to NBC so it doesn’t feel left out on the holiday—who cares? Colts-Steelers? Two 5-5 teams? On Thanksgiving night? Don’t think so.

Actually covering a Thanksgiving Day game is one of the few things not on my resume and I can’t say it’s something that I tell myself I need to do before I retire—IF I retire. My mom was very big on families being together on the holidays and I inherited that feeling from her. I HAVE been away on holidays—I spent several Christmas’s covering basketball in Hawaii—NOT a bad thing, I must admit—and I spent two Thanksgivings in Alaska, also covering basketball. I enjoyed those trips too, although I missed being home. I don’t like turkey so my mom always made me a duck. My wife, bless her, has continued that tradition.

The first time I went to Alaska was in 1984 when I was covering Maryland basketball. I flew on the same Western Airlines flight with the team, first through Salt Lake City and then Seattle. In Seattle, the Kansas team got on the plane. Larry Brown was coaching the Jayhawks and he came over to say hello to me and, more so, to Lefty Driesell, who was coaching the Terrapins. The teams were scheduled to meet in the first round of The Great Alaska Shootout on Friday.

Brown was with his wife. Lefty was with me.

“Didn’t Joyce come?” Brown asked Driesell.

“Nah,” Lefty said. “She didn’t really want to go all the way to Alaska to watch three basketball games.”

“Yeah,” Brown said. “Barbara (his wife at the time) isn’t all that fired up about it either.” He looked at Barbara and smiled. “But, she just can’t stand being away from me for five days, right honey?”

Barbara kind of rolled her eyes.

“Yeah well, the only person who can’t stand being away from me for five days is Feinstein. (he actually said, ‘Fahnsteen.’) Right John?”

“Absolutely Lefty.”

The Browns were divorced a couple of years after that trip. I still can’t stand being away from Lefty for very long.

I drove out to see the Portage Glacier the next day and had Thanksgiving dinner with Lefty (of course) and his team. Then, I watched 12 basketball games over the next three days. I flew out of Anchorage on a red-eye on Sunday night. In the airport, it occurred to me I didn’t have a single souvenir from the trip. I went into the gift shop and found a gray-and-blue mug depicting various Alaska landmarks with the word, ‘Alaska,’ on it. I bought it.

Thirty-two years later, I still have the mug. I’ll drink my coffee from it on Thanksgiving morning.

Turns out Maske’s wrong. Some Thanksgiving traditions still have meaning.

John Feinstein’s latest book is, “The DH,”—a Young Adult (kids 10-and-up) mystery. His most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” has been on The New York Times bestseller list for six months.

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